The “Sheriff of Emptiness”


Kay Ryan (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan, our current U.S. poet laureate, calls herself the “Sheriff of Emptiness.” I wrote about her today here.

I met Kay years ago, through Dana Gioia, another North Bay poet.  We had an interview at Kay’s Fairfax home in July 2004.  I had described the meeting in my notes this way:

“Ryan is waiting for me, but not idly.  She is re-grouting the colorful Puebla-style tiles, on the risers of her entryway.  She is short and solidly built.   In khaki shorts and a black t-shirt, however, she appears scrappier, more muscular than she might appear more fully dressed at her readings.  Her longtime companion, Carol, is in Mexico, and Kay is alone in her brisk, clean house.  She is alone, except for Wally, a pale-colored, ancient cat who is mostly bones and fur  – so old he has lost most of his senses, but not his sense of friendliness, and is nevertheless currently in disfavor.”  [He had urinated on something, as I recall — ED.]

Wally, alas, died soon after my visit.  But my connection with Kay lasted longer.  I remember her recalling her family’s move to the Mojave: “It was hot, it was empty.  I didn’t have any friends.  And it took me awhile to come to like it.  But now I really do feel I have the desert in my blood.”  Much like her poem “Blandeur,” she said,  “ I like the emptiness, I like the lack of features.  I like its featurelessness.  I like how any event is a big event.”

And I remember this comment about her 30-year teaching stint at the College of Marin:

Back to Marin .. you teaching remedial writing?

I teach very basic English skills.

I think the way you described it when I first met you was, “My Friend, the Comma.”

I introduce them to the concept of indenting.  We learn to capitalize certain words, and not capitalize others.  I go up through the paragraph – writing a paragraph with a topic sentence and primary supports.

Who are your students?51VW9lkcaxL._SL500_AA240_

They range from high school students to people in their fifties.  Many second-language students.  Lots of people who got off-course one way or another, through drugs, or through just a variety of difficulties in their life, so they didn’t get basic skills.  I like the people I work with.  I’ve never wanted to teach any advanced courses.  I like the sort of life-and-death teaching.  These are survival courses.  And I don’t like spoiled people.  I don’t like to do for people what they could do for themselves.  These people aren’t spoiled.  They’re not saying, “Entertain me.” They’re here to get what they need to have their gardening business.  Some are going ahead in school.  But for some…to get a job at Long’s.  To be able to write a note at the bank where they work.

I still admire Kay’s respectful and thoroughly practical outlook towards teaching the students who need it most.

Speaking of the desert — here’s the cover of Kay’s new book, out this month:  The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.

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